The hesitant aid worker

When I started my first job in 2005, I told my family and friends I was working in the development sector. There were many who didn’t see why a promising (according to them) young graduate should choose not to enter the corporate sector (becoming a government bureaucrat was a close second in the pecking order) and attempt to improve his standard of living. I said ‘standard of living’ because of the purely monetary judgments involved and I am not even sure it refers to what we understand by ‘quality of life’. We would have long intense debates about whether it was possible at all to contribute to an increase in general social welfare, to alleviate the pressing development problems in the country. Those who felt this was a path worth treading on would engage in thinking through questions such as what development meant, for whom, and how we could be effective in our chosen fields. Even though a very small minority, they have been a big source of support and inspiration.

This post though is not about them. It is about the others – who could be family, friends, neighbours, teachers in school and college – pretty much everyone. But it is not very difficult to see why this is the dominant paradigm. The story goes somewhat like this –

Having grown up in Trivandrum, a city with about a million people, we were always reminded that India had massive metros such as Delhi (19 mn) and Mumbai (21 mn), not to speak of the rest of the world and its glittering New Yorks and Londons (Mohuda or Delwara didn’t quite sound as exciting). It of course went without saying that along with these names, we also heard about the high costs of living in those cities, the cost of owning assets (like a house, land or automobile) that were increasing by the day – and since we were supposed to aspire to live in a ‘big city’, we had to be earning enough to keep pace. Earning enough often was directly associated with how we did in school, college (mostly professional colleges now), university (or b-school). And our families would spare no effort in ensuring that we got the best they could afford (or borrow for).  In return, we are supposed to do our best and get the best grades possible; clear professional entry-level selection tests and whiz through placement seasons.

Like millions of other families, my family was reasonably well off and could easily afford a comfortable standard of living in the city we lived in. We had everything we needed and almost everything we wanted. What I grew up with determines what I now think is necessary to lead a comfortable life. What we clearly did not have, was the security that even if I didn’t do something to earn a monthly paycheck, I could maintain my standard of living. And all our parents knew only too well that their carefully accumulated retirement savings would not suffice if we too had to be supported beyond a certain age. Therefore, acing through schools and colleges was not enough. By the age of about 24, we also had to earn enough and start saving for (the future) family. Yes, that’s right. This means that my family completely took care of all my costs until I was 22. I never felt bad asking for what we agreed was reasonable and I am sure my parents never hesitated from refusing what they thought was unreasonable. And I am expected to do the same for my children. So the development sector is really not for someone like me to hob-nob with. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth – and it made everyone curious that I wanted to join an NGO and be based in a rural area after a second degree in rural management the age of 22, at a time when I should have been chasing the big bucks.

None of the above is a secret from the rest of the extended family and the community around us. So they too felt like it is their moral obligation to make sure we didn’t stray off the path to ‘settling down’ ASAP in our lives (‘settling down’ = high income + marriage + own/rented house in big city). Also, our targets were supposed to be aspirational. I was automatically expected to aspire to something more than what my parents had achieved. This could just be impossible in say, intellect…But if everything is translated into money, sky is the limit! And yes, in a nation of over a billion people, everything was scarce. Sure, all conceptions of scarcity are relative, but throughout our lives, we are expected to compete with our peers. His/her grades, salary, house (even spouse) could not be better than mine. Everyone around everyone was busy pointing out to each other how someone else was doing better on some count. So we could be working in the development sector, or for all that it matters, in the finance industry or be selling soap – it didn’t matter as long as all the above expectations were fulfilled.

I dont believe that anyone is being unreasonable here. Lots of us continue to go through this and it is just the sign of societies struggling to reach a life of dignity and achievement, a lot of which, at this stage is measured by social status and material standards of living, and no one really has the time to worry about whether our successes are at the cost of others. So my being in ‘development’ is the result of a calculated decision – calculations that often dont add up. There are wild swings between passion and trained pragmatism – between romance and frustration. As a trained professional though, I feel we are less likely to become self-sacrificing martyrs. We are also less likely to become self-serving bigots. But what about ‘the people’ whose lives are affected by development workers like me?


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